Radway studied a selection of women's romance novels and, more importantly, had a series of conversations with an informant, Dorothy Evans, who worked at a Mid-Western branch of an American chain bookstore and published a monthly newsletter in which she reviewed newly published romances. Dorothy believed that "a good romance focuses on an intelligent and able heroine who finds a man who recognizes her special qualities and is capable of loving and caring for her as she wants to be loved" (p. 54). Radway also had informative conversations with 16 of Dorothy's customers, and analyzed 42 responses to 50 questionnaires she sent out. It seemed to be a surprise to Radway to find herself performing a psychological study of readers' experiences, and to come to respect readers' opinions.
Part of the brilliance of this book is that, in it, Radway leaves telling trails of footprints along paths she traced and retraced in her approaches to her material. One of Radway's paths was that, as a literature professor influenced by the New Critics, she was supposed to study the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text. So she took a rather sniffy attitude to the romance texts, which she describes as "dominated by cliché, simple vocabulary, standard syntax, and the most common techniques associated with the nineteenth-century realist novel" (p. 189). A second path was from her feminist perspective. She says: "it is tempting to suggest that romantic fiction must be an active agent in the maintenance of the ideological status quo because it ultimately reconciles women to patriarchal society and reintegrates them with its institutions" (p. 217). A third path was her interest in psychoanalysis, especially in Nancy Chodorow's work, The reproduction of mothering (1978). She wonders whether the romance's underlying appeal is based on regressive fantasies in which women "feel particularly happy, [as] they escape figuratively into a fairy tale where a heroine's needs are adequately met" (p. 93).
Here are two readers' descriptions of romances, which Radway says were echoed again and again by Dorothy's customers:
Generally there are two people who come together for one reason of another, grow to love each other, and work together solving problems along the way—united for a purpose. They are light easy reading and always have a happy ending which makes one feel more light hearted.
I think [a romance] is a man and a woman meeting, the growing awareness, the culmination of the love—whether it's going to jell or if it's going to fall apart—but they [the heroine and the hero] have recognized that they have fallen in love [emphasis added]. (p. 65).
Romance reading … is a strategy with a double purpose. As an activity, it so engages their attention that it enables them to deny their physical presence in an environment associated with responsibilities that are acutely felt and occasionally experienced as too onerous to bear. Reading, in this sense, connotes a free space where they feel liberated from the need to perform duties that they otherwise willingly accept as their own. At the same time, by carefully choosing stories that make them feel particularly happy, they escape figuratively into a fairy tale where a heroine's needs are adequately met. As a result they vicariously attend to their own requirements as independent individuals who require emotional sustenance and solicitude. (p. 93).
Nancy Chodorow (1978). The reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Janice Radway (1984). Reading the romance: Women, patriarchy, and popular literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.